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By CHRIS SHERMAN | I’m “doing” Thanksgiving this year for 14 people, seven of whom I have never met. I fear I will never measure up to the glossy photos in the November issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine. Picture after picture of perfectly roasted turkey and pumpkin pie only add to my feelings of culinary inadequacy. (Last year, after much fuss and flour, my pumpkin pie baked up with a huge crack in it, which, to save face, I called “the fissure of authenticity.”)
With optimism rooted in fantasy, I set out once again to gather supplies for the ultimate dinner for 14, seven of whom I have never met. As I walk along to the market, I picture my family, friends and the frequently aforementioned strangers ooing and ahhing over my totally made-from-scratch dinner, including pumpkin soup and crusty popovers served with chive compound butter. There I stand, turkey platter in hand, basking in the warmth of their accolades.
However, before I fantasize myself into a James Beard Award, the sliding doors to the supermarket burst open, and so do my lofty dreams of leisurely studying and agonizing over each product and ingredient, so as to insure the most perfect dinner. Village supermarkets are tight on a good day, but on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, they’re a clog of shopping carts and crying kids. The aisles are jammed with the frightened expressions of frenzied shoppers who have clearly never done this sort of thing before. Everyone is talking to themselves, and this being New York City, some are even hurling profanities at themselves. You see, as much as the magazines and food networks illustrate, ad nauseam, how to cook a Thanksgiving dinner, no one ever talks about how to shop for the dinner. (I can imagine the early settlers’ magazines, like Better Puritan Homes and Gardens, running features, such as, “Your Thanksgiving Turkey, from Forest to Table” or “Your Freshest Turkey Ever — It’s Worth a Shot.”)
I wrestle for the last cart. I can feel the store’s frenetic atmosphere. Everyone is grabbing at the last few pathetic onions and rushing around with more than their arms can carry. I soon realize I am in way over my head. I panic as I begin to calculate the time and energy it will take to pull off a dinner like Martha’s, for 14 people, SEVEN OF WHOM I HAVE NEVER MET, without the full-time staff of chefs and food stylists. And without a damn onion.
Tightness wells up in my throat as I remember it is not just about the cooking. I have to clean the house, for strangers, which is not the same at all as cleaning it for myself. The china needs to go in the dishwasher, the silver needs polishing and I have to hand wash the stemware. And the bathrooms! I am now in a full-blown anxiety attack.
Fantasies of laboriously, yet lovingly made gravy and pie, give way to the reality: canned gravy and Entenmann’s. Not wishing to be totally thwarted, I toss a bag of cranberries from the fresh produce aisle into my cart. How hard can making fresh cranberry sauce be? Sugar, water, cranberries…easy. But as I approach the canned cranberry aisle, I shamefully place the bag of berries, sagging with defeat, on a nearby shelf, opting for the convenience of the canned. Another fantasy bubble bursts as I realize there is just no way I will have time to make fresh cranberry sauce. There is defeat and compromise around every corner, down every aisle: the frozen string beans, the canned yams, the Stove Top Stuffing. All I’ll need to cook this meal is a can opener and a box cutter.
On the checkout line, which is starting to resemble the line for Space Mountain at Disney World, I rethink the whole thing. Would it be so terrible if I served the butternut squash soup from the box, or used paper plates, at least for dessert? Would Martha Stewart frown upon Redi-wip or Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh? Heck, I’ll never see at least seven of my guests again, so why knock myself out?
My Thanksgiving magazine fantasies are smashed. I want the glossy picture, but not the stress — and I don’t want to have to feel badly about it. In fact, I bet Martha Stewart, whom I cannot picture cleaning bathrooms, goes to somebody else’s house for Thanksgiving. Or, even better, perhaps she lives out my greatest Thanksgiving fantasy of all — going out to eat.